The coneflower is one hybrid that's flourished without much fuss.
The coneflower is one hybrid that's flourished without much fuss. (photo: Andy Sotiriou/Photodisc/Getty Images)

Hybrids exist partially because of diversity and the need for plants to adapt to almost any climate.

— Gary Petterson, owner of Gardener’s World nursery and Gardener’s Eden Landscaping

All-natural crops are fine, but botanists have tried for centuries to make them even better through the art of hybridization. This combination of the best traits of two plants creates large crops of strong, pretty and even tasty species with a long bloom season. Poplar trees, ambrosia melons, early girl tomatoes and many roses are among the popular hybrids today.

New varieties are crafted and tested regularly, yet not all of them are immediately market worthy. Some, like the typical hybrid rose, can take as many as 10 years to develop. Others will lose distinctive characteristics from the original plant, and some are just plain disappointments. The coneflower, for example, had been a reliable perennial for decades. The hybrid versions released over the last decade display intolerance to heat, don’t bloom or just disappear, according Lynn Hunt, blogger, horticultural judge and consulting rosarian emeritus for the American Rose Society.

Despite such failures, as of 2012, hybrids aren't going anywhere, and most experts recommend them for gardeners of all levels. The home gardener is likely to reap more of the benefits of hybrids than endure their shortcomings.

Hybrid 101

As the name suggests, hybrids come from specialized breeding of two species. The intent is to create an offspring that features desirable characteristics from its parents, says John “Jay” Harper, owner of Harper’s Nursery and Landscape Co., Inc., in Mesa and Scottsdale, Arizona.

“Plants may be cross-pollinated or bred with another plant of the same species that is deemed more heat tolerant, has a different colored flower, better or more compact foliage. … Traits, so to speak, that might be considered superior or more marketable,” Harper said.

Hybrids were once designed only for farmers who must rely on large, consistent crops from year to year. Hybrids and their seeds have become so popular and inexpensive at nurseries and home-improvement stores that most home gardeners plant and grow hybrid varieties without even realizing it. In fact, hybrids rank among the most popular garden-variety food and decorative plants due to their aesthetic appeal, easy maintenance and vigor in what would otherwise be considered adverse growing conditions.

“A lot of ornamental plants, like orchids or roses, are hybrids," said Gary Petterson, owner of Gardener’s World nursery and Gardener’s Eden Landscaping in Phoenix, Arizona. "Most bedding flowers in most nurseries are hybrids."

What to Expect

The perks of hybridization go hand in hand with the objectives of most recreational gardeners. They're perfect for someone who simply values organic produce or desires the pop of color offered by vibrant blossomed bushes around the porch.

Harper says many casual plant lovers don't even know hybrids make such a difference.

“A homeowner probably has no idea that the plant was ever hybridized, especially if the cultivar fits his or her particular needs, or they just like how it looks or performs,” Harper said.

Increased tolerance of temperature or other outside conditions are other desirable bonuses of hybrids.

“They are bred to find new flowers with special qualities like fragrance, a new color or a new shape," Petterson said. "Breeding crop hybrids helps create pest resistance, longer storage, better taste in apples, strawberries and other foods.”

Matt Kennedy, manager of weGrow, a hydroponic store in Phoenix, Arizona, says some hybrid colors or sizes are geared specifically toward home gardeners.

“When you grow hybrids, it’s nice to get to experience all the different types of tastes, sizes and colors,” he said.

What to Consider

The benefits are not without a few potential downsides.

While disease and pest resistance are taken into consideration when breeding certain hybrids, this isn’t the case with all varieties. Kennedy advises doing some research on the type of plants you intend to grow before purchasing them or asking a professional at a local nursery for what factors to consider.

“Whenever you are breeding for certain traits, you could be losing others,” he said. “Some local nurseries do the breeding themselves, so a lot of them are genetically stronger.”

Harper says the home gardener may notice some other negatives in hybrids. Sometimes, hybridization results in diminishing a characteristic a particular plant is known for, such as the loss of fragrance in a rose.

“In other words, we sacrificed scent for a bigger or longer stemmed flower,” Harper said. “A juicy tomato may not ship well, so it is hybridized to have a stronger or tougher skin so that it holds up better in shipping, but may be less juicy or flavorful.”

If you’re unsure about which hybrids are best suited for you, take a cue from your natural surroundings. Most hybrid varieties will find the same success, if not more, than their nonhybrid, or open-pollinated, counterparts that are part of your landscape or popular at local nurseries and gardens.

While generally heartier, hybrids have similar water, soil and light requirements as nonhybrids. They tend to be a bit more forgiving of less than ideal earth or sporadic watering.

If you want to be more adventurous and try a species that is less common in your geographic region, hybrids give you the opportunity to indulge that curiosity.

“Hybrids exist partially because of diversity and the need for plants to adapt to almost any climate,” Petterson said. “You need only to look to the countryside and see which native plants grow there. Anything else you see is usually a hybrid that has been bred to survive in a nonindigenous environment.”

  • Photo Credit Andy Sotiriou/Photodisc/Getty Images
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